Dear Secretary General Ban Ki-moon:
You no doubt observed the Fukushima disaster on March 11, 2011, with terror and worry: what would another nuclear disaster mean for state relations, especially in your home region of East Asia? Fortunately, it seemed, the effects were largely kept to Japan’s islands and were less than many experts anticipated. Within weeks the stories dissipated if not disappeared from the major media outlets, only to be resurrected with personal interest stories of a hero or an especially tragic case of a lost loved one.
But the crisis is not over. Today, Martin Fackler reported in the New York Times that radioactively polluted water is leaking out of the plants and that the site is in a new state of emergency. Mitsuhei Murata, Japan’s former ambassador to Switzerland, wrote a letter last year that brought international attention to the thousands of radioactive spent fuel rods at the site and the danger their vulnerability presents; he has testified to this several times before Japan’s parliament. International experts, independent and of the International Atomic Energy Agency, have commented that the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s plans for the removal of the rods from the site and their storage in a safer, if still temporary, location are optimistic if not unrealistic.
The news media has done an adequate if meager job of reporting the many issues the fuel rods present. The radioactive fuel must be continuously cooled in order to stay safe; the improvised electric system that maintains this cooling has failed several times, once for more than 24 hours, both on its own and because of hungry rats. The mechanism that stands between safety and a fire at the Fukushima Daiichi plant is, to say the least, precarious. (And, as has been clear to many since the beginning, TEPCO hope to shirk its responsibility: first, in its safety and maintenance of the site; second, in paying its costs to Japan.)
One can only speculate to the extent of the consequences of a spent fuel fire, but, unarguably, once a fire ignites (from lack of cooling water or from an earthquake-caused spill), even the best case scenario would be an unprecedented global disaster. Possible consequences are the evacuation of Tokyo’s 35 million people, permanent disuse of Japan’s land, and poisoned food crops in the United States. These are not fantastic projections, but reasonable, if not conservative, expectations.
Yet, unimaginably but all too familiarly, the situation is still relegated to the back pages of our papers, and thus to the back of our leaders’ minds. This reminds me of our international approach to solving climate change, which I have partaken in for decades, first in the United Nations and then as the Secretary General of the Parliamentary Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro: we have a latent but very serious issue that we can likely fix but lack the resolve and political will to do so. As you well know, a successful climate change agreement has eluded us.
In comparison with climate change, however, the radioactive fuel rod issue at Fukushima is both easier to solve and more urgent. Any Japanese can tell you another serious earthquake will hit Japan well inside the next decade. That is to say, this situation must be resolved quickly.
Still, even if possible to solve, the issue needs constant attention and competent and well funded actors. So who might take charge? The International Atomic Energy Agency said last week that it will take TEPCO 40 years to secure the radioactive fuel rods in more appropriate storage containers. TEPCO is already refusing to pay Japan billions of Yen in cleanup costs, and does not have the technology or wherewithal to perform the task competently and expediently. Yet, so far the Japanese government has only looked to TEPCO.
The next obvious choice outside Japan is the United States, for their technological superiority, money, and leadership. Early after the accident, the U.S. Department of Defense offered assistance to Japan, but the Japanese denied their help. It remains to be seen whether that door has permanently closed. This would not be a benevolent action: the U.S. sits in harm’s way in the case of a fuel pool fire; residents of California, Oregon, and Washington have already received much radiation. U.S.-led action, except perhaps by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, is unlikely: U.S. senators and representatives continues to demonstrate their impotence at home or abroad.
I have long been advocating for an international team of independent experts to investigate the situation. The United Nations is one appropriate body to assemble and deliver such a team. The IAEA, however, should not take on the responsibility.
The IAEA’s mission is to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Concerns of proliferation are not applicable here, and the disaster itself has certainly called into question (again) what the peaceful use of nuclear energy means and whether it should be promoted. While the agency has recently urged safety improvements at Fukushima, the official line of thinking is still, incorrectly and impossibly, to use TEPCO to carry out the process.
We are not only waiting for a bigger disaster. One is already unfolding before us. The health consequences of the released radiation are large: despite what major news outlets are reporting, we will see a significant jump in thyroid and other cancers in Japan in four to five years. Congenital malformations will likely begin to appear. The premature reporting of some UN agencies and the press at large has been irresponsible: do we have no notion of what “precaution” means? These latent effects will cripple much of Japan’s young population within the decade.
Our myopia, in Japan and internationally, is tragic. One bright spot was the UN Special Rapporteur Anand Grover’s fact-finding mission in Japan last year; I hope you back his findings and circulate them widely.
We have already waited too long, as we did for climate change, to take international action on Fukushima. But now it is clear that we cannot allow Japan to take care of an issue that could affect all of us.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, I urge you to use your unique position as the head of the United Nations to galvanize political will and organize an independent assessment team of international scientists and engineers to solve the Fukushima radioactive spent fuel rod issue before we are forced to reckon with the fallout of another disaster. Japan and the world should not have to suffer more because we choose to wait.
-Former Special Advisor to the United Nations Development Program
-Founder and Secretary General of the Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders for Human Survival
-Secretary General of the 1992 Parliamentary Earth Summit Conference in Rio de Janeiro